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Keep Occupying

In the spring of 1971, a dozen of my fellow seminarians and I rented a Volkswagen van and drove to Washington, DC, to protest the Vietnam war. It was a large gathering in our nation’s capital, and passions ran deep at that time. Our country was divided, and it was difficult to protest the war without appearing unpatriotic and worse—unsupportive of our troops. Yet, to this day, I believe what we did was right and just. We took a lot of flack from some, including the townspeople of Ogdensburg. (We also led candlelight protests there.) They were angry at us, and we were angry at Henry Kissinger, John McNamara, and President Nixon. “War is hell,” we believed, and carpet bombing, Agent Orange, the constant stream of flag-draped coffins, and My-Lai confirmed our beliefs. We wanted to something…we had to do something. We prayed. We tried to be informed, and we acted. To this day, I believe that we were part of a much larger nationwide protest that actually did help end the war.

Recently nearly 15,000 protesters marched in New York. Police pepper-sprayed the crowds and swung batons at those who crossed the barricades. Eyewitnesses reported that one officer forced women into pens and sprayed mace in their faces at close range. Not quite firehoses aimed at close range in Selma or tragic and real bullets fired at Kent State and Jackson State, but such is the price paid for protest. But today images of the ugly scenes are posted on YouTube, and these images stir today’s activists from the couch to the streets. Peaceful protesters continue to “take the heat” for trying to do something in the face of injustice.

Occupy Wall Street may be shaping up to be a defining moment for young adults, known commonly as the millennial generation. This generation, commonly criticized for numbing themselves with text messages, reality television, and video games, finds itself to be the prime mover in perhaps the most promising protest movement to sweep the country in decades. They are doing what our elected leaders and politicians continue to fail to do: hearing the voice of the majority of Americans and taking action on our behalf.

Protesters seem united in the desire for economic justice and equal representation by their elected leaders. They call themselves the 99 percent, because they believe that one percent of the US population controls an incongruous amount of our country’s wealth. One demonstrator summed up the cause as an attempt “to stand up to the ‘corporatocracy’ that we taxpayers financed and saved after the crash of 2008.”

Could it be that most of the occupiers are well informed, articulate, and justice-oriented? The lust for profit and power has led to an erosion of our democracy and the ethics and values that used to guide us. The working and middle classes are feeling a similar bleak and inauspicious future that folks living in chronic poverty have felt for a long time. It is a future that seems increasingly out of our control.

A fairly well known protester, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” Justice matters. “Liberty and justice for all” matter. Criticisms of today’s nonviolent protesters are misplaced. At least they are trying to do something. I hope they stay united. And I respect their tenacity, as they go out and try to make a difference.

> Paul Bloom, Lancaster

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